Keith Kelsen’s The Scent Narrative: THE SMELL OF US (part 1)

Scent is a social and cultural phenomenon. The recent advent of the “Internet of Scent” has made it the “Blue Ocean Opportunity”.  There are deep and lasting ramifications of scent based on a biological and psychological experience.  The worlds’ cultures all differ in the meaning and importance they attach to smell. Does this mean that one culture will have dominance in the world of what smells good?  Could there be a challenge to the “Smell of US”?

In ANTHROPOLOGY OF ODOR, anthropologist E.T. Hall states: “In the use of the olfactory apparatus, Americans are culturally underdeveloped. The extensive use of deodorants and the suppression of odor in public places results in a land of olfactory blandness and sameness that would be difficult to duplicate anywhere else in the world. This blandness makes for undifferentiated spaces and deprives us of richness and variety in our life. It also obscures memories, because smell evokes much deeper memories than either vision or sound.[1]

America the Land of the Bland?  Whether we agree with their position of about Americans being “culturally underdeveloped”, the truth is that Smell does evoke much deeper memories than either vision or sound.  Historically, technology has driven both the audio and visual narratives and continues to drive the creation amazing content, there is a natural progression that the scent narrative is just beginning.  The scent narrative will drive the perception internationally and culturally, what is attractive in scent and what is repulsive.

From the SMELL REPORT, we learn of various cultures and their preferences for certain scents. While we tend to think that Western notions are international and timeless, that is far from the truth.

  1. For the cattle-raising Dassanetch of Ethiopia, no scent is more beautiful than the odor of cows. The association of this scent with social status and fertility is such that the men wash their hands in cattle urine and smear their bodies with manure, while the women rub butter into their heads, shoulders and breasts to make themselves smell more
  2. The Dogon of Mali would find these customs incomprehensible. For the Dogon, the scent of onion is by far the most attractive fragrance a young man or woman can wear. They rub fried onions all over their bodies as a highly desirable
  3. The most complex aesthetics of scent are to be found in Arab countries, where women use a wide range of scents to perfume different parts of their bodies. In the United Arab Emirates, musk, rose and saffron are first rubbed over the entire body (which must be scrupulously clean). Hair is perfumed with a blend of walnut or sesame oil and ambergris or jasmine. The ears are scented with Mk-Hammar yah, a blend of aloe wood, saffron, rose, musk, and civet. Ambergris and Narcissus are among the scents used on the neck, sandalwood in the armpits and aloe wood on the nostrils. Perfumes are only used, however, in private situations, when a woman is in the company of other women, or of her husband and close family. To wear perfume in public or in the company of men is ‘to be like an adulteress’.
  4. The African Bushmen would probably regard the olfactory preferences of almost all other cultures, including our supposedly sophisticated Western tastes, as distinctly lacking in subtlety. For the Bushmen, the loveliest fragrance is that of rain.

In America, the scent of a new car brings back childhood memories of the excitement of getting a new car.  Parents or neighbors extolled the joys of the new vehicle, while the youngsters inhaled, and that joy bonded to a complex scent.  It’s even sought after and replicated in car wash scent tabs. Americans revel in inhaling deeply that New Car Smell.  However, in China, the same scent is considered repulsive and new cars must “air out” before delivery!  To people who rarely were in a new car, much less owned one in their childhood, the distinct smell is of chemicals like formaldehyde and rubber, similar to the factories where their parents worked.  With the Chinese culture absorbing 22 Million cars per annum vs. America’s 8 Million, this is an important segment. Could the world consensus be that the new car smell is dead?

As I have talked about in earlier narratives, I believe that scent is the newest media. Remember sight was the all-important, up-market, superior sense, the sense of reason and civilization, while the sense of smell was deemed to be of a considerably low order. This is changing rapidly and science is supporting it.

“The low status of smell in the West is a result of the ‘revaluation of the senses’ by philosophers and scientists of the 18th and 19th centuries…The emotional potency of smell was felt to threaten the impersonal, rational detachment of modern scientific thinking. This demotion of smell has had a lasting effect on academic research, with the result that we know far less about our sense of smell than about more high-status senses such as vision and hearing. The low status of smell in Western culture is reflected in our language: colloquial terms for ‘nose’, for example, are almost all derogatory, or at the very least disrespectful (schnozzle, conk, hooter, snoot, snout, etc.) – and large or distinctive noses are considered ugly.[2]

Perhaps there will be a resurgence in prominent noses! Maybe the historic Cyrano de Bergerac the celebrated French novelist, poet, and duelist will be revived. Best known as the inspiration for Edmond Rostand’s most noted drama Cyrano de Bergerac which, although it includes elements of his life, also contains invention and myth; yet perhaps the most famous romantic nose in history!

What has begun in such fields as perfumery and wine, is a new appreciation for scent across our culture and the world. And this is turning into a revolution.  Proof of this is profiled in these 4 points by Kate Fox in her “Smell Report”:

The study of olfaction, previously of interest only in specialist medical research and experimental psychology, is now attracting ever-increasing numbers of anthropologists, sociologists, and historians.  In popular culture, the current aromatherapy-boom indicates a similar revival of interest in the powers of perfume. Once regarded as obscure hippie/new-age mumbo-jumbo, aromatherapy is now respectable as  ‘mainstream’.  The findings of research on olfaction, previously reported only in obscure academic journals, now appear regularly in popular newspapers and glossy magazines.  Even the world of technology, so long obsessed with audio-visual-tactile processes, has recently turned its attention to the mysteries of olfaction. In the last decade, scientists at Warwick University developed the first electronic nose, and companies with names like ‘Aromascan PLC’ are now competing for a slice of the lucrative high-tech sniffer market.

With Scent commerce growing, scent now has a higher profile, both medical and healing implications, even romance, and entertainment options. As this trend continues, it’s easy to assume that the 21st Century may well be the century for the nose and for the scent of us! In Part II, we will explore the cultural affectations and communications on scent!

[1] ANTHROPOLOGY OF ODOR (1990-1994) David Howes, Anthony Synnott Concordia University And Constance Classen, Harvard University

[2] ‘The Smell Report An overview of facts and findings’ Kate Fox, Director, Social Issues Research Centre

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